Animal Representations in Renaissance Art


By: Samuel Abrahams /


Most of these meanings aren’t superficially evident to the viewer. During

the Renaissance period, artists used animals to depict their own mythological and religious

views, often using older symbolism but altering their earlier meanings. One single animal could

represent different, often contradictory, meanings. Animal images have been metaphors in art

since ancient times. During the Renaissance period, artists used animals to illustrate their own

religious and mythological narratives, often using older symbolism but changing their earlier


Throughout the Renaissance, dogs were frequently depicted in paintings, usually being

used as a motif: perhaps part of a hunting scene, or depicted in religious, mythological, or

allegorical works, or perhaps most frequently, beside their masters in portraits. However, the

role of the dog also changed during the renaissance era. As Edgar Bowron puts it in his work

“Dogs: Renaissance Art”: “In the Renaissance, working dogs were ubiquitous, they pulled carts,

herded sheep, and baited wild animals….their menial status mostly precluded their appearing

as such in paintings of the period” (3). However, this attitude towards dogs quickly shifted, as

dogs became “integrated into court life, aristocratic tastes and fashion, and the status of hunting

among the royal and noble classes changed” (4). Clearly, the status of the dog as belonging to the

“aristocracy” increased its role in Renaissance art tremendously.

Pisanello, considered one of the most distinguished artists of the Renaissance period

produced a great deal of art that contained animal imagery. Pisanello realistic depiction of the

dogs in his work The Vision of Saint Eustace was particularly inspired by his own dogs and

the detailed anatomical descriptions he did of them in his sketchbooks. As Edgar Bowron puts

it Pisanello’s animal depictions “individual animals taken directly from life exemplify the

artist’s intensifying quest for accuracy and realism” (3). The tense, nervous hunting dogs in the

foreground The Vision of Saint Eustace, were so influential that “they served as an important

source for subsequent artists who reused them for their own compositions” (4).

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(Fig. 1): Vision of Saint Eustace by Pisanello (1438)


Another animal that appeared frequently in my research was the bird. Bird images,

according to Simona Cohen in her work Animals as Disguised Symbols in Renaissance

Art “represented sacrifice, resurrection, the soul and death”. However, she gives a closer

examination to one animal in particular: the goldfinch. “The goldfinch is one of the most

frequently painted birds in Renaissance art and also symbolizes the healing of the sick…. as

well as redemption” (27). This theme was used by famed Renaissance artist Raphael in his work

Madonna of the Goldfinch In Christian tradition, when a goldfinch or a robin plucked a thorn

from the crucified head of Christ, a drop of blood fell on its face or breast, leaving a red patch.

This is what is depicted in Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch.

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(Fig. 2): Madonna of the Goldfinch by Raphael (1506)


One single animal, such as an ermine, could represent different, often contradictory,

meanings. Previously in art history, the ermine symbolized purity and chastity. However, in

Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, the subject is Cecilia Galleriano, the mistress of

Ludovico Sforza ( the Duke of Milan). The portrait is an allegory on this relationship, rather

than having the ermine represent chastity, da Vinci used the ermine to depict adultery, as Cecilia

had already born the Duke a son. Thus, Leonardo da Vinci erased the ermine’s history and

implemented a new symbol on the image of the animal.


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Lady With An Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci (1489)


The renaissance emerged as a rejection of the medieval scholastic education,

emphasizing practical, pre-professional and scientific studies. Scholasticism focused on

preparing men to be doctors, lawyers or professional theologians, and was taught from approved

textbooks in logic, natural philosophy, medicine, law and theology. Thus, the concept of

renaissance humanism emerged to go directly against this utilitarian approach. Renaissance

humanism sought to create an educated citizenry, able to speak and write with eloquence and

clarity, thus capable of engaging in the civil and political aspects of their communities and

persuading others to these “virtuous actions”. This, renaissance humanists argued, was to be

accomplished through the study of the humanities: grammar, history, poetry, philosophy, etc.

One could argue that the renaissance period was marked by a rejection of preconceived

notions of society. Then, one could argue that the role of those involved in that previous

ideology has changed. This is where animal depictions come into play. As previous to this time

period, animals had been represented heavily in art as laborers. This clearly changed during the

renaissance art “boom”, as animals became focalized and personified in these works of art. Thus

not only did the role of the animal change in the 14th and 15th centuries, but their depictions in

art did as well.


Overall, I would say I have gained a greater understanding on animals entirely. The analysis not only of animal representations during class, but also the ethical/moral/political lenses we have used to observe and examine animals gives me a much greater appreciation for the intricacies of the non-human animal. I would definitely say this class has made me think more about my daily interactions with animals and the role animals play in our society. I would say that the difference between the human and the non-human animal has been socially created. Although the main point that most make about the difference between the human and the non-human animal is that we can talk while the animal cannot, I believe it is more of a social construct than anything else. We have systematically placed animals on a lower rung of the social hierarchy, thus we think it is ok to take advantage of them. The ethical dilemma involved in the human-animal relationship is the massive amounts of cruelty we inflict on the animal through testing, consumption and farming. The combination of these two actions creates a hostile (and sometimes deadly) environment for many animals in this world, and we as humans must recognize and end this dilemma.

One of the more interesting topics in class was the use of animals in advertising. I found this interesting because it combines the practical concept of marketing with our own understanding of the animal. It was interesting to see how certain animals are used to target particular socioeconomic groups.

Another idea that I came across during the class was the concept of animal representations in hip-hop. With the rise of hip hop I have noticed a large amount of animal images included in hip-hop artists marketing strategies. Whether it’s 50 Cent, Meek Mill or Big Sean, many rap artists are using animal images. The use of animal references within rap lyrics has also become prevalent. If I were to continue to investigate this, I would use lyrics like A$AP Ferg’s “Dump Dump” to show the self-perpetuation of racial stereotypes by rappers: “I pray to god he ain’t lying/My gorillas live in the zoo”.

Because of this class I have a gained an even greater sense of empathy for the plight of the animal. This class has helped me reevaluate and reexamine my own relationships with non-human animals, and gives me the resources to improve my connections with the animal.

Works Cited:


  • Simona Cohen. Animals as Disguised Symbols in Renaissance Art, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol.
  • 62, No. 3 (Fall 2009), pp. 912-913
  • Browner, Edward. “Renaissance Art.” The Bark. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.
  • Kielmas, Maria. “The Symbolic Meanings of Animals During the Renaissance | The Classroom |
  • Synonym.” The Classroom. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.
  • Boehrer, Bruce. A Cultural History of Animals in the Renaissance. Oxford: Berg, 2007. Print.
  • “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” European Art in the Renaissance. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr.
  • 2014.
  • Cohen, Simona. Animals As Disguised Symbols in Renaissance Art. Leiden: Brill, 2008. Print.
  • Fudge, Erica. Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures.
  • Urbana: U of Illinois, 2004. Print.




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